88, 83, 86. Those are the Cardinals win totals over the last three seasons, seasons in which they did not reach the playoffs.
100, 90, 97. Those are the Cardinals win totals over the preceding three seasons, seasons in which they won the National League Central division.
On average, that places the difference between a third-place finish in the division and a first-place finish at 9.5 wins. Over the course of a six-month season, that means one extra win about every three weeks is the difference between playoffs and no playoffs. The big question facing us as we look ahead at the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals is this: Did they get 9.5 wins better?
To answer that question, we need to look at a few things. First, we need to gauge if the new players in the Cardinals everyday lineup are better or worse than the players they are replacing. Second, we need to look at the coaching staff and ask a similar question. Third, we need to look at the rest of the division and determine if those teams have gotten better or worse.
Let’s start by looking at the Cardinals projected opening day lineup. Catcher, second base, shortstop and the two corner outfield spots all will be filled by the same players as last year. On the infield, the consistency is very welcome news. In the outfield, not so much. The projections for left fielder Marcell Ozuna and right fielder Dexter Fowler are dramatically different than they were a year ago. We need bounce back years from both players in order to get our coveted 9.5 new wins.
In center field, youngster Harrison Bader inherited the starting role from Tommy Pham in mid-2018, after Pham was traded. Bader is an exciting talent and an exceptional defender, but he needs to prove he can hit big league pitching consistently if we can expect him to add a plus in our projected wins column.
The infield is super interesting. Redbirds fans, you are going to love, love, love Paul Goldschmidt, who has seemed destined to end up a Cardinal his entire career. He is an understated superstar with hall-of-fame-caliber individual skills and a team-first attitude. Technically, Goldschmidt replaces Matt Carpenter, who, in turn, replaces Jedd Gyorko. So the question here is “How much better is Goldschmidt than Gyorko?” The answer is “a lot.” Is he 9.5 wins better? Probably not, but it’s pretty close.READ: Goldschmidt expected to provide added pop to Cardinals lineup
The pitching staff is made up of two high-end starters [Mikolas and Flaherty], a flame-throwing youngster [Hicks], a formerly flame-throwing oldster [Miller] and a whole bunch of high-quality question marks. The fact is, there are no more guaranteed stars on major league pitching staffs. The Cardinals approach, apparently, is to have about five possible answers to every question on their pitching staff.READ: Baseball legend helps Flaherty become better pitcher READ: Mikolas looks to duplicate or surpass 2018 performance
Maybe the biggest opening day difference between last year and this year is the man standing on the top step of the dugout. Mike Shildt replaced Mike Matheny as manager mid-year last season, and the results were promising. Shildt was developed through the Cardinals system, so the front office power structure knows him incredibly well.READ: Shildt ready for his first full season as Cardinals manager
At a high level, Shildt just seems like more of a “modern” manager than Mike Matheny ever did. He uses advanced metrics, he employs the shift, he actively and aggressively manages his bullpen – all traits of the new generation of baseball coaches. Matheny relied a lot on gut instinct, Shildt is more of a numbers guy. While that does not necessarily mean he will be more successful, it does mean he will be more consistent, more predictable. Over a 162-game season, consistency matters a great deal.
Another key change to the coaching staff is the addition of Jeff Albert as hitting coach. Albert spent the last five seasons with the Astros, but the five before that were in the Cardinals organization. Shildt knows him well; ownership and the front office know him well. Similar to Shildt, Albert is thoroughly modern. The most important aspect of his coaching style to track this year is that he preaches against strikeouts, which is so modern it’s retro. Major League Baseball teams seemingly have grown very comfortable with hitters striking out a lot in recent years, but Albert’s approach values contact, which is a notable change.
One last small note – the Redbirds’ first base coach will be Stubby Clapp and their third base coach will be Ron “Pop” Warner. Is there anything more baseball than base coaches named Pop and Stubby? No, there is not. By definition, there is nothing more baseball than Stubby and Pop at first and third.
THE REST OF THE DIVISION
It is possible that the Cincinnati Reds are the most improved team in baseball this year? Luckily, they were pretty much the worst team in baseball last year so they will still remain pretty far behind the rest of the division. That said, they will not be a pushover by any means.
That description pretty much sums up the National League Central Division – there are no pushover teams. It may very well be the most competitive division in the major league in 2019.
The upstart Brewers and the baby bears of the Windy City did not do much to get better this season, but they did not get any worse either. We are not going to find our 9.5 extra wins by counting on other teams to get more losses.READ: Boring? Molina begs to differ, defending St. Louis as ‘home’
THINGS TO WATCH FOR
Which pitchers step up? Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Andrew Miller, Adam Wainwright. Every one of these guys has All-Star stuff when they are right. Very few of them have been right for very long over the last couple of years.Cardinals bullpen: Is it Miller time? READ: Wainwright looks to turn back time this season for Cardinals
Will the outfield be offensive? Every presumed starter in the Cardinals outfield has question marks next to their offensive production. Marcell Ozuna was one of the most feared righties in baseball just two seasons ago. Can he get back? Dexter Fowler doesn’t need to hit for a high average or a bunch of power to deem his comeback a success. He just has to get on base. With Bader’s high-end athletic ability, speed and baserunning he just needs to find the bases any way he can to be a success this year.
Who gets benched? The Cardinals bench will be an odd group this year. Gyorko, Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neil are all big-time bats who cannot settle into a defensive position. Newcomer Drew Robinson is pretty OK at nearly everything. The backup either will be a former all-star [Matt Wieters] or a FOY [Friend of Yadi] named Francisco Pena.
In the minds of most pundits, the Redbirds have returned to their rightful place as favorites to win the division. Have we made a strong argument that they have closed the gap on those elusive 9.5 wins that will achieve those predictions? Perhaps. The Cardinals are better than they were last year. Goldschmidt alone made this the strongest offseason for the Cardinals in a long time. But is he enough?READ: Molina says he’s fine after offseason knee surgery
Our prediction: The Cardinals are able to scratch and claw their way to 92 or 93 wins, which proves to be enough to claim the National League Central title. We don’t need any magic salsa or rally squirrels – in Goldschmidt we trust.
Starting Pitchers: Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson
Bullpen: Carlos Martinez, Dominic Leone, Chasen Shreve, Andrew Miller, Jordan Hicks, John Gant, Brett Cecil
Starting Infield: catcher Yadier Molina; first baseman Paul Goldschmidt; second baseman Kolten Wong; third baseman Matt Carpenter; shortstop Paul DeJong
Starting Outfield: left fielder Marcell Ozuna, center fielder Harrison Bader, right fielder Dexter Fowler
Bench: Matt Wieters, Jose Martinez, Drew Robinson, Jedd Gyorko, Tyler O’Neil